Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Uncomfortable with Sales? You Should Be

Over the years, one of my chief objectives has been to help technical professionals become more comfortable with the sales role. My reasoning is understandable: Discomfort with sales keeps many professionals from getting more actively involved. More involvement, logic would suggest, will lead to more sales.

But the fact is that most A/E firm sales come from a handful of people who don't mind selling. They often have another kind of shortcoming—they're too comfortable with it. Why is that a problem? Because most buyers have a problem with sellers. One study found that 85% of buyers have a negative view of salespeople. My own informal polling of professionals in our industry yields similar results.

Why so much dislike for salespeople? RainToday conducted a survey of professional service buyers to learn what we are doing wrong. They found that 80% of buyers experienced at least one major problem during the sales process. The most common problems were:
  • Not listening
  • Slow response to client requests
  • Not understanding the client's needs
  • Talking too much
  • Lack of personal chemistry
  • Unable to demonstrate adequate value
  • Failing to craft a compelling solution
  • Overzealous in trying to win the work
I'd like to see a survey of professional service sellers asking what mistakes they most often make. I suspect their answers would be quite different. That's what happens when we get too comfortable with anything we do—we develop blind spots. And that can prevent us from taking the steps necessary to substantially improve.

Given the widespread distrust of the selling profession, there's little reason to get too comfortable. Do you really think you're immune to the common perceptions of sellers? Sure, you've probably had success. But how much more successful could you be if you looked at the sales process through the client's eyes?

Rethinking the Sales Process

I had been a business development professional for many years before I finally had an epiphany on the way to work one morning. I realized that my approach to selling embodied many of the same flaws that I disliked when I interacted with salespeople. I had been focused on what worked for me rather than what worked for the client. I started to imagine how I was really perceived by clients, and it made me uncomfortable.

That started a process of rethinking and redesigning my sales process. But the most important step was changing my mindset—from focusing on the outcomes I wanted to focusing on the outcomes the client wanted. I discovered that serving clients produced better results (for both parties) than selling to them. Hence, I developed an approach I call Service-Centered Selling.

Following are the core principles of Service-Centered Selling:

FOCUS: Serving, not selling. While most people hate to be sold, everyone appreciates being served. When selling professional services, building trust is the foremost objective. Traditional selling erodes trust because it's seller-oriented. But serving the client in the sales process restores trust. 

MOTIVATION: Meeting client needs, not primarily your own. We distrust salespeople because we question their motives. We suspect they're driven by their own needs,not ours. And most of the time we're right. So what about your firm? When does selling become a priority? When you really need the revenue! Think clients don't notice? Client focus is not as easy to fake as many think it is. Motives matter in sales; put the client first and watch your own needs get met as a result.

GOAL: Developing profitable relationships, not just pursuing projects. A sometimes myopic focus on winning and doing projects plagues our industry. This despite the fact that most firms boast that about 80% of their work comes from repeat clients. Sustainable success is founded on enduring client relationships. Not surprisingly, those firms that concentrate on relationship forming during the sales process—versus simply chasing projects—have a distinct advantage.

COMMITMENT: Time spent with the client is always mutually beneficial. The one aspect of my old sales approach that most convicted me was failing to properly respect the value of the client's time. Clients were generally kind enough to meet with me, and I believe some genuinely enjoyed it. But the fact is they could usually have made better use of their time. That is, until I committed to bringing something of value to every sales conversation. This is what I call the "entree," which typically involves helping the client address a need or solve a problem.

OUTCOME: The sales process is the primary way you differentiate your firm. Qualifications-based selection rules may prevent clients from shopping your services on price (sometimes), but don't assume they really make decisions based on qualifications. The truth is they screen firms based on qualifications (sometimes), and then select the one they feel most comfortable with. The trust-building, relationship-forming advantages of a service-driven approach to selling positions you to be the firm of choice. Don't tell clients how good you are, show them!

So what's your comfort level with selling? If it makes you a bit uncomfortable, then stop selling and starting serving. On the other hand, if you're comfortable in the sales role, ask yourself this question: How comfortable is the buyer on the other side of table? Really. Is it time to reevaluate your approach from the client's perspective?

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